The second and final visit of the Lebanese delegation to Iraq, headed by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, was in Erbil. The delegation discussed how Lebanon can help Iraqi authorities with the displaced who fled the land occupied by the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul, the eastern and western parts of Iraq and some parts of the Ninevah Plains.
A member of the Lebanese delegation told Al-Monitor that the senior Kurdish officials, whom the delegation met with, seemed more interested in the issue of IS and its movements on the ground, as if they were militarily responsible for the current battle. The capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was threatened before the US Air Force intervened. At the beginning of the discussions, a senior official in Erbil did not hide his surprise at the IS attack on the Kurdistan Region.
At the political level, the authorities in Erbil were never on good terms with the authorities in Baghdad that IS declared war on. At the sectarian level, the senior Kurdish official noted his surprise at the IS war on the Kurds, as the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Sunnis, just as the IS fighters are. So why did they attack Erbil? There is no easy answer to this question.
Furthermore, the same official told the Lebanese delegation that IS had scored a victory involving morale in its war against its enemies, before any military achievements on the ground. He said, “We were defeated in terms of morale before the battle had even started. We have been scared and panicked, just as the people have been terrified watching the news on the mass crimes committed [by IS]. In Qaraqosh [also known as Baghdeda], which is the largest Christian town in the Ninevah Plains, the residents left even before IS gunmen headed toward the city. As soon as they heard unofficial and unconfirmed news about the IS advancement, the residents of Qaraqosh packed their belongings and fled toward the north to Ankawa, the Christian neighborhood in Erbil.”
The same Kurdish official acknowledged that IS has become a de facto state. He told the Lebanese delegation that the area controlled by IS is almost 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) — contrary to what the media estimated, which is 130,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) — with a population of nearly 10 million people. He even estimated that IS acquired in a few days about 1,500 armored vehicles of various types, and armored troop carriers and tanks they seized from the Iraqi army that collapsed in the northwestern parts of Iraq.
Yet, according to the same Kurdish official, the most dangerous part is that IS gunmen are coming from all over the world. He told his Lebanese guests that a few days ago, the Kurdish peshmerga forces ambushed and hit an armored vehicle carrying IS gunmen, and found out that one of the gunmen was a non-Iraqi Arab, while the remaining four were European nationals.
The opinion of the Kurdish official intersects with that of the officials in Baghdad on one issue, namely, who will actually fight to eradicate IS? The official does not have an answer to this question. Yet, he revealed to the Lebanese delegation that the Kurdish forces are determined to restore areas occupied by IS in the Ninevah Plains. These are originally the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil, and this issue has been unresolved for 10 years now.
Nevertheless, the Kurds are connected to these areas for economic and strategic reasons. Therefore, the senior official in Erbil said that his forces will expel IS gunmen from the plains within weeks. He added, “With the support of the US Air Force, of course. We will enter the areas where [the US Air Force] conducts [air] raids, while the situation will remain the same in the areas where it does not [conduct air raids].”
What about the Christians in Erbil? The Kurdish official confirmed to the Lebanese that he is open to arming them and providing them with everything necessary that helps reassure them until an armed unit that consists of the Christians of Iraqi Kurdistan is established, as part of the peshmerga forces. They can have a special status within the peshmerga — such as a Christian fighters unit — but only under the peshmerga’s military command because any particular armed unit could raise problems, just as happened several times in the Iraqi-Kurdish history.
The same official did not seem convinced that Christians are determined to fight. He feels that they are completely defeated, and defeated in terms of morale. They are now waiting for the opportunity to emigrate to the West, and that what is stopping them today is that most of the displaced do not have an identity card or passport, as IS gunmen took these during the tragic displacement. Thus, Christians are waiting for the arrangements, either by the Erbil authorities or international organizations, that would give them temporary IDs. Traveling to the West would then be their first choice, thus turning the page of a long history on this land after the tragedy they suffered.
The Kurdish official came across as being certain in his evaluation of the situation of the Christians in Erbil — he seemed aware that the Iraq he knew no longer exists, and will never return.